Spices and Sauces

My husband was a bit skeptical that anyone would want to read a blog like this (if you are reading this….thank you!), but when I mentioned that I was going to include our method of using spices and sauces he was quite a bit more enthusiastic. Vegetables were not exactly his favorite thing to eat when we started on this venture, but making them more flavorful has made all the difference to us and is why we have enjoyed eating only plants.

If you are well versed with spices and sauces, my tips will seem pretty pedestrian. But my own past experience with cooking vegetables was as side dishes, when the most I would do with them was to add butter or Parmesan cheese, salt and pepper. Pretty boring. If your idea of “eating more vegetables” is eating more of that, then hopefully you will be encouraged to expand your culinary efforts with some simple spice combinations or sauces (see the section on cheese substitutions for cheese sauces).


Looking back to the “cooking vegetables” section, my routine is to group spices in a similar way that I group vegetables.  So if I roast or saute a big pan of vegetables, I might season them (with salt and pepper too) in one of these ways:

  • For an Indian or Middle Eastern style taste, blend powdery spices like cumin, coriander, turmeric, and garam masala, which is the basis of most curry sauces. These can all be bought at any mainline grocery store, or you can buy a jar that is already put together as curry powder.
  • For a Mexican style taste, blend chili powder and cumin. I love this combination for grilling onions and green peppers for soft taco meals or with chili. Use equal amounts, adding a little at a time until you like it.
  • For an Italian or harvest style taste, use leafy herbs like basil, rosemary, thyme, oregano and parsley, either fresh or dried.


There is some obvious overlap here, since any good sauce will use spices for flavor. But this really is the key to learning to like more vegetables! You go from a boring side dish to something that is filling and tasty all on its own. I found it helpful at first to find a few sauces that we liked and are not too difficult or exotic and build from there. Sometimes recipes are so complicated or have such strange ingredients that it is not worth bothering. Save those challenges for when you entertain or take a dish for a potluck. For every day, keep it simple. Here are a few simple sauces that will add pizzazz to cooked vegetables that can be served with rice or pasta, or just by themselves (you may need to review the section on substitutions for some of the referenced ingredients):

  • Pesto–great with pasta or on pizza dough instead of red sauce. A non-dairy version can be made with nutritional yeast instead of Parmesan cheese. Also, for those with nut allergies, it can be made with seeds instead of nuts. Finally, though pesto is typically made with basil you can use cilantro, arugula, the tops of root vegetables, collards, kale, or other greens to make wonderful pesto. Here is my favorite basic pesto recipe.
  • Curry sauce–great with any cooked veggies and served with rice. If you like, there are tons of recipes you can find online. For something completely simple, you can just try this recipe:

1 tablespoon Earth Balance butter or coconut oil

1 Tablespoon flour or cornstarch (use gluten free if needed)

1 teaspoon cumin

1 teaspoon coriander

1 teaspoon garam masala

1 teaspoon turmeric

(or 4 teaspoons of prepared curry powder)

1 can coconut milk

Salt and pepper to taste

Melt butter in a sauce pan, add flour and blend with a wire whisk. Add milk and spices and bring to a boil. Simmer, stirring frequently to keep from burning, until thick. Make extra and store some for another day.

  • Teriyaki sauce. This is one sauce I have been making for many years, or sometimes buy prepared. It is a wonderful marinade for meat and vegetables, so I still use it to marinade tofu or other meat substitutes.  There are many recipes online, but I have always used the one from Joy of Cooking:

1 cup soy sauce

1/2 cup oil

3 tablespoons sugar (brown, white or agave nectar)

3 cloves garlic, crushed

1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger

2 tablespoons sherry

Mix together and use as a marinade. Use only a little to saute the vegetables and meat substitute. Add the rest of the sauce and heat through. To thicken the sauce mix 1 tablespoon a little cold water in a separate bowl. Add to the hot sauce and heat until thickened.

  • Marinara sauce. Okay, we called it spaghetti sauce! When my kids were little I used Ragu or Prego from a jar. Then I decided to try to learn to make it on my own. One of the greatest mealtime pleasures was when my kids said they liked mine so much better than the store bought kind. As adults they have asked for my recipe so they can make it themselves, so I will share it here too:

With fresh tomatoes, first blanch them (put in boiling water for about 2 minutes, then plunge in ice water) and remove the skins. Once skinned, chop and cook tomatoes until they are soft.  For canned tomatoes, I usually use 2-4 cans of stewed chopped tomatoes depending on how much I want to make. Whatever your amount of tomatoes, start with:
1 or 2 onions chopped

1 or 2 green peppers chopped

a handful of chopped mushrooms (optional)

2-4 garlic cloves, smashed

Cook the onion and green pepper until soft. Add the garlic and mushrooms and cook a bit more. Add the cooked tomatoes.  If you want you can add a can of tomato sauce as well, but you will need about one can of tomato paste so it will thicken.

For seasoning add:

Dried or fresh oregano, basil and parsley (1-2 tablespoons each)

1 tablespoons sugar

salt and pepper to taste

I have always added the sugar to cut down on the acidity of the tomatoes, which I think the key to why we like it so well! Cook this for an hour or so to let the flavors sink in. I store them in canning jars, but you could also freeze it in plastic containers. Try serving over spaghetti squash instead of pasta for a low calorie, filling, and delicious spaghetti dinner.

  • Gravy. My sister-in-law hosted Thanksgiving this year and kindly made several vegan dishes, including this wonderful mushroom gravy, that everyone loved–even the meat eaters.  Great over mashed potatoes or stuffing. Here is the recipe:

1/2 large onion minced

6 large or 10 reg mushrooms chopped

2 garlic cloves minced

2 c veg broth

1 tsp thyme chopped

1/2 tsp rosemary chopped

1 TBS nutritional yeast (not rising yeast)

1 tsp sherry

1 TBS soy sauce

2 TBS flour (gluten free if desired)

1/4 c nondairy milk

salt and pepper to taste

In medium sized nonstick saucepan saute onion until beginning to brown (5 to 10 mins). Add mushrooms + 1 TBS water and cook another 3 mins. Add garlic and cook another minute.  Add broth, herbs, yeast, sherry, soy sauce. In separate bowl whisk milk and flour together until smooth then add to saucepan and stir well. Simmer, stirring occasionally for 15 mins. S + P to taste. Serve warm.

  • Peanut sauce. Great with noodles or rice dishes, chilled for a salad dressing, or just over vegetables. This is one I have adapted from other sources:

¼ cup peanut butter, either crunchy or creamy

¼ cup vegetable broth or non-dairy milk if you would like it creamier

2 Tablespoons soy sauce (low sodium preferred)

2 Tablespoons rice vinegar

2 cloves garlic, crushed

¼ teaspoon fresh ginger, shredded

¼ cayenne pepper (optional)

Combine all ingredients in a saucepan over low heat (mixture will become easy to combine as peanut butter melts). Continue stirring over low heat until ingredients are combined and mixture is smooth and creamy. You may want to thin it out a bit with more water, depending on what you’re using it for.

If you like your food on the hot side, add jalapeno or chili peppers to any of the sauces or with the vegetables. Working with hot peppers can be tricky, though, because it is hard to get off your hands and if you rub your face or eyes after using them it can hurt! (speaking from experience) I sometime wear non-latex gloves when cutting them up. Or I learned a new trick: rub your hands with stainless steel after working with peppers. It takes off the hot somehow (really!) Also, if you happen to get it in or near your eyes, a paper towel dipped in milk (even non-dairy milk) will soothe the burning feeling. And though this is not a political entry, I recently learned that presidential candidates from both parties in this year’s election both agree on the merits of jalapeno peppers!

Need more ideas? Forks Over Knives has a great selection of plant based recipes, including a whole section on sauces and dressings such as cannellini bean paste, enchilada sauce or roasted red pepper sauce here.

Don’t have time to make your own sauce? Just keep a selection of store-bought sauces in the fridge. As I write this we have tabasco, sriracha, hot ketchup, an oriental chili garlic sauce, salsa, and barbecue sauce on hand. There’s a big selection of plant based sauces at your grocery, great for putting a quick and tasty spin on whatever leftovers you have handy.




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